Zelensky faces unprecedented criticism for failing to warn of war


KYIV, Ukraine – Until this week, Ukrainians seemed to view President Volodymyr Zelensky as blameless, a national hero who remained in Kyiv despite the risk to his personal safety of leading his country against invading Russian troops.

Comments he made to the Washington Post justifying his failure to share with Ukrainians the details of repeated US warnings that Russia was planning to invade burst the bubble, setting off a cascade of public criticism not seen since the start of the war.

Ordinary people tweeted their experiences of chaos and dislocation after an invasion they were unprepared for, and described how they might have made different choices had they known what was coming. Public figures and scholars wrote on Facebook harshly critical of his decision to downplay the risk of invasion, saying he bears at least some responsibility for the atrocities that followed.

Interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

In the interview with The Post, published on Tuesday, Zelensky cited his fears that Ukrainians would panic, flee the country and cause an economic collapse as the reason he chose not to share the stark warnings issued by US officials about the planes of Russia.

“If we had communicated that … then I would have been losing $7 billion a month since last October, and by the time the Russians attacked they would have taken us in three days,” Zelensky said.

He added that subsequent events – with Russian troops failing to reach the capital – suggested he had made the right decision.

“That’s what happened when the invasion started – we were as strong as we could be. Some of our people left, but most of them stayed here, they fought for their homes. And as cynical as it sounds, these are the people who shut it all down.

Many Ukrainians objected to the implication that Zelensky had prioritized the health of the economy over their well-being and suggested that many lives could have been saved if the government had properly prepared the population at war.

Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, a Ukrainian news site, posted on Facebook that she was “personally offended” by Zelensky’s explanation, saying she questioned the intelligence of Ukrainians. She would not have fled, she said, and the potential cost of $7 billion a month to the economy must be weighed against the lives lost, Russia’s rapid capture of parts of the south of Ukraine and the fear and intimidation of civilians who have unexpectedly found themselves under Russian occupation.

“Honestly, my hair stood on end when I read what [Zelensky] said about the evacuation. … How can a person who has Mariupol, Bucha and Kherson on his conscience say that an evacuation would have overwhelmed the country? wrote journalist Bohdan Butkevich on his Facebook page, referring to places where Russia has committed atrocities.

“He didn’t want to put the country on a military footing because he was afraid of losing power,” Butkevich wrote.

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The lack of warning for civilians living in threatened areas, and especially those with children, the elderly and those with reduced mobility, was “not a glitch, not a mistake, not an unfortunate misunderstanding , not a strategic miscalculation – it’s a crime,” said Ukrainian author Kateryna Babkina.

The outpouring also included numerous defenses of Zelensky. Valerii Pekar, a publicist who teaches at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, wrote on Facebook that Ukrainians had wide access to media reports of US warnings.

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“Anyone who hasn’t packed their own backpack after reading the US intelligence report information has no right to claim they weren’t tipped off,” he said. .

“We all knew and understood that war was coming. We just didn’t want to believe it because it’s too terrible to be true,” Olena Gnes, founder of the What is Ukraine project, wrote on her Facebook page. “None of Zelenskyi’s statements would have changed anything significantly.”

Some of the criticism came from political opponents who would seize any opportunity to attack the president, Musaieva, the newspaper’s editor, said in an interview. But many did not.

The level of outrage is unprecedented in wartime Ukraine, she said, and represents perhaps “the first serious communication crisis” for Zelensky, considered a master communicator, and his crew.

Even those who said they understood why Zelensky did not want to cause panic said they nevertheless wondered if there were any steps that could have been taken to lessen the impact of the invasion – from the preparation from blood banks to digging trenches along the northern border to prevent Russian troops from overrunning many towns and villages before being stopped outside Kyiv.

Such questions had lingered, unspoken, since the ferocity of the invasion stunned the country on February 24, ordinary Ukrainians said. But the consensus has been that Ukrainians must unite and refrain from criticism as the country is at war, said Oksana, 30, who was discussing the controversy Thursday at a Kyiv cafe with her partner. She asked that her full name not be used as the subject is sensitive.

Now that some people are raising questions about Zelensky’s choices, many are wondering if more could have been done, she said.

“My biggest question is about the level of atrocities we have seen, and I wonder if they could have been avoided,” said Oksana, who did not vote for Zelensky but now wholeheartedly supports him as the leader Ukrainian needs to win the war.

“It will hurt us to discuss it now,” she said. “Ukraine is winning thanks to our trust in the president and our armed forces. So I’m prepared to wait for the explanation until we win the war.

“Then we start asking questions,” she said. “There are questions that need answers because this is the society we are fighting for – a society of responsibility.”

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